The duo behind Short Grain, a truck turning out “untraditional Japanese” fare, has quickly gained a cult following among local F&B pros and eaters alike. We caught up with the culinary couple as they celebrate the first anniversary of their business and their marriage.
Charleston Magazine: How did you meet?
Shuai Wang: It’s a pretty cliché story. I was the opening chef de cuisine at Chez Sardine in New York City, and Corrie was part of the front-of-house staff.
Corrie Wang: One day we held hands through the pass where the kitchen sends out food—and that was it.
CM: So far, what’s been challenging about owning a food truck?
SW: I moved from China to Queens, New York, when I was nine, and I didn’t drive at all in the city. So as soon as we moved to Charleston in December 2014, I got a license and bought a Toyota Tundra as well as a 17-foot trailer. Dealing with parking isn’t easy, nor is making sure the trailer is intact and everything is running. I’m the chef, line cook, dishwasher, and mechanic. I was never the handiest person, so I’ve learned a lot. I also can’t stand up straight inside the trailer. It’s seven feet tall on the outside, but the inside is condensed with the lights and air conditioning.
CW: Plus there are two of us in there!
CM: That must get rough sometimes.
CW: We’ve developed a few tricks for when one of us is in a bad mood. I still think it’s cool that we get to work together, though it’s getting more stressful as we get busier.
SW: You might say something you don’t quite mean, but....
CW: It’s more about checking our tone. Sometimes we get a little short with one another.
CM: Have your roles shifted?
CW: I stopped doing prep. I’m not a cook, so I’d feel like I was making a mess the whole time, and I started to get a little resentful because I’d think, “I could be writing!” So we hired someone to help Shuai, and I stay at home and write or handle administrative stuff.
CM: So you have a book coming out?
CW: Yes! I’d originally moved to New York City to pursue writing. I sold my first book last year—just one week after getting married at Charleston City Hall and opening the food truck. It’s a young-adult novel, sort of a techie thriller set in the very near future.
CM: What is “untraditional” Japanese?
SW: We’ll take something super traditional in Japan and put our own twist on it, or make it more familiar to palates here. That way we’re intro-ducing something new without it feeling too out of the ordinary. Right now we’re offering sweet potato and cheddar fritters. They’re a play on takoyaki, octopus-filled fluffy balls in a creamy, pancake-like batter. They’re usually served with Japanese mayo, takoyaki sauce, and bonito flakes, and we bring those elements to our version.
CW: One of our more popular items is karaage-don. It’s Japanese fried chicken, and while we could call it just that, we make a point of writing “karaage-don” on our menu—along with the English description—and saying “karaage-don” when people order it. Maybe the next time they go to a Japanese place, they’ll recognize it.
CM: Shuai, does being Chinese alter your approach to Japanese food?
SW: The best part about being “untraditional” is not having to follow any guidelines. I can sneak in Chinese elements along with, say, classic French techniques. Take our “chicken confit rice bowl:” it has sushi rice; tare, a Japanese sauce; chicken confit and a sous-vide egg; and a scallion-ginger relish, which is traditionally Chinese. I get to cook with flavors that are familiar to me, that remind me of something I used to eat, or that I simply find delicious.
CM: What are your goals for year two?
SW: We’d like to focus less on the truck this year, and more on pop-ups—the trailer limits us in terms of space. And we’re looking for the right outfit for a brick-and-mortar.
CW: We’re being picky and patient. We want something a little rundown, maybe an old diner.
SW: We want to expand on our concept. So it doesn’t have to be fancy—just our style.